July 06, 2016
Tournaments have long been proving grounds for new tactics, gear, and locational theories. Opportunities abound for competitive anglers to test their skills and mettle against fellow walleye anglers.
Walleye fans of all sorts benefit from these battles, especially astute observers who carefully track competitors' travails and triumphs, gleaning insights on how to break down new water and employ breakout tactics. Veteran pro Mark Courts has seen countless changes in tackle and techniques over the years. Recently, he reflected on current trends and how far we've come since the spring of 2008, when he claimed the 2007 In-Fisherman Professional Walleye Trail Championship crown after an epic battle against the PWT's top contenders at Lake Huron's Saginaw Bay.
It was perfect timing for the conversation, since Courts had just claimed 2015 Angler of the Year honors on Cabela's National Walleye Tour. He accomplished the feat — his first AOY title in 16 years of competition — by notching solid finishes on a variety of waters, including Leech Lake and the Mississippi River in Minnesota, Green Bay, and North Dakota's Devils Lake.
"One of the biggest changes is improved equipment," Courts says, "especially in boat positioning aids." Electronic and navigation tools played a role in his PWT championship win seven years ago and are even more important today. Back in 2008, he credited part of his success to the hands-free autopilot features of his Minn Kota Terrova bowmount, which allowed him to pay attention to presentation particulars of his finesse spinner program, while the trolling motor minded his speed and heading.
His winning pattern was so creative it's still noteworthy today, particularly wherever increased water clarity has made walleyes jittery. Focusing on migratory fish moving through 14 feet of water in the Callahan Reef area, Courts slow-trolled whole nightcrawlers impaled on a single #2 Owner snell hook behind a #5 Colorado blade. Speeds of .08 to 1.1 mph were key, but the extreme distance at which his rigs trailed the boat separated him from his competitors. "My boards were 175 to 200 feet from the boat, to minimize spooking," he says.
Another key component that remains relevant was his three-way swivel and 17-inch dropper, which was anchored by a 1-ounce snapweight. "That setup kept my spinners just above the scattered zebra mussels and weedgrowth, while still kicking up a slight dust trail on the primarily sand bottom," he says.
The latest crop of maps, motors, sonar, and GPS offers even greater potential for helping anglers find fish fast and stay on top of them. Courts says these tools have changed the way many pros attack bodies of water. "First of all, we can sit at home and analyze fisheries in detail with mapping software systems like Humminbird's Contour Elite," he says.
Fellow pro and past NWT and Cabela's Masters Walleye Circuit champ Corey Sprengel is a testament to the value of such pre-tournament scouting. "I spend all winter doing homework," he says, explaining that along with a heavy dose of Internet research, mapping plays a pivotal role in his planning.
"I take a look at fishing reports for each body of water I'm going to fish that season," he says, noting that condensing three or four years of data often provides a picture of annual patterns, including seasonal walleye migrations and top fishing areas. "Looking back helps me predict what's going to happen in the future and stay a step ahead of the competition," he says.
He then spends hours scrutinizing digital cartography on his chartplotter, eyeballing productive areas revealed by his research. "Once I understand why community holes attract fish at a given time, I try to find similar but overlooked spots that should also hold walleyes without crowds of anglers," he says.
The ability to study a fishery from home has affected the tournament scene in a number of ways. "First, you don't need a team of anglers to break down big water and be competitive," he says. "With the tools we have now, you can be a one-man gang if you do your homework."
Courts adds that new maps also are more detailed. "Many LakeMaster charts have been updated with 1-foot contours, and if you find an area where they haven't, you can map it yourself." Do-it-yourself mapping has become much easier, thanks to offerings from Navionics, as well as Navico, Humminbird, and others. Courts says the ability to create detailed hydrographic charts — particularly from high-definition down-, side-, and 360-imaging sonar recordings, fuels an intimate understanding of the underwater world that anglers could only dream of 10 or 20 years ago.
High-tech sonar isn't just for making maps; its main job is helping you find prime lies and hungry 'eyes. Along with high-def broadband, side- and down-scanning technology, competitive anglers are arming themselves with other new twists headed into 2016, including three-dimensional and CHIRP imagery (short for Compressed High Intensity Radar Pulse). 3-D sonar such as Garmin's Panoptix "All-Seeing Sonar" and Lowrance's StructureScan 3D presents the boat, baitfish, predators, and structure in an easy-to-grasp picture that helps anglers understand the world beneath the waves.
"Being able to see walleyes, structure, and cover in a three-dimensional perspective relative to your position takes situational awareness to new heights and makes it easier to place your boat and baits accordingly," says longtime touring competitor and trendsetter Marty Glorvigen. "Three-dimensional sonar also helps determine locational trends, such as which way a school of walleyes is headed," he adds, "which is extremely helpful when planning trolling passes to intercept wandering fish without spooking them.
CHIRP technology adds another wrinkle to sonar, using high-intensity, broad-spectrum beams to paint a clearer picture than traditional single- or dual-frequency sonar. It boosts sensitivity without increasing clutter, so you can spot fish holding tight to bottom, in cover, or within or below a baitfish school.
Courts says the combination of more effective pre-trip scouting, plus better mapping and sonar, have changed tactical strategies as well. "In the old days, the mindset was to cover water by trolling to locate fish, whether it was with crankbaits or spinners," he says. "Now we focus on smaller areas or specific groups of fish, which makes precision presentations more important."
Aiding such strategies are advanced GPS-based positioning systems such as Minn Kota i-Pilot, MotorGuide Pinpoint GPS, and ProNav Angler, which operate in sync with the trolling motor to trace contours or hold the boat in one spot without dropping an anchor. Courts uses i-Pilot, especially in deep water, and says its Spot-Lock feature holds your boat in place by firing up the trolling motor if you move over five feet out of position. "You can also record and retrace trolling or casting passes at whatever speed you wish with the Record-A-Track option," he says.
In water less than 12 feet deep, he works spike-style anchors into the boat-control arsenal. "Shallow-water anchors like Minn Kota's Talon let you pin the boat off a reef or other key area with the push of a button. They're everywhere on the bass scene but walleye anglers are just starting to take advantage of them."
While Courts used spinners to take the PWT title, these days he favors making surgical strikes. While some old favorites remain popular, he notes that swimming jigs and glidebaits such as Rapala Jigging Raps, Northland Tackle Puppet Minnows, and Moonshine Lures Shiver Minnows are the latest trend. "They garnered some attention years ago on the PWT and MWC thanks to guys like Kim "Chief" Papineau, but they never caught on," he says. "Now they're a mainstay and guys are figuring out ways to catch fish with them from Devils Lake to the Great Lakes."
Jigging Raps were a key part of Scott Larson's winning program at the 2015 NWT championship on Devils Lake. Hovering a Jigging Rap over a fat return he marked on a rockpile produced a sag-bellied kicker fish that fueled a final-day rally and handed him the win.
On the big-water scene, longtime pro Keith Kavajecz says Moonshine Lures' Shiver Minnows excel for casting attacks in areas such as breaklines in 15 to 30 feet of water along reef edges, points, and other promising drop-offs. He's used them extensively in Green Bay, while other anglers troll spinners or crankbaits. And he won an NWT qualifier with them at Escanaba, Michigan, in August 2014, a time of year when open-water trolling typically dominates the Bays de Noc scene.
Kavajecz recommends aggressively working a #3 Shiver Minnow with no tippings in a snap-drop retrieve. "Depending on the type of bottom and presence of moss or weedgrowth, you can thump bottom or swim it just above the substrate," he says. "The bait jumps off to the side on the snap and plummets on the pause."
Courts works both types of hard-bodied swimming jigs into his bag of tricks. "With a Jigging Rap or Puppet Minnow, I hover over fish and keep the lure 6 to 8 inches off bottom," he says. "Then I pop the rod tip to make the bait swing out to the side, then let it settle back to center." He notes that ultra-sensitive lines like Berkley NanoFil help detect light bites. His typical setup includes 14-pound NanoFil mainline with a 30- to 36-inch leader of 12- to 15-pound fluorocarbon. Courts uses a similar setup with a Shiver Minnow. But instead of hovering, he sweeps the rod upward from 9 to 11 o'clock, then lets the lure free-fall while taking up slack and watching the line for signs of a strike.
While the sole use of artificial baits is standard in bass tournaments, the concept is not widespread on the walleye side. The PWT and MWC banned natural baits at a few special events, a full-scale switch to the concept seems unlikely in the near future.
For North Dakota's artificial-only walleye warriors Corey Heiser and Troy Morris, however, the future is now. In March of 2014 they swore off livebait in competition and coined the term "Artifishalleyes" to raise awareness of their message. Since then, they've enjoyed stellar success on a variety of venues on the MWC trail. This past season, they racked up a win on Devils Lake, second on Big Stone Lake on the Minnesota-South Dakota border, and 10th at Minnesota's Cass Lake. In the process, they topped the field headed into the MWC World Walleye Championship, earned the titles of North Dakota State Champions and Minnesota State Champions, captured four MWC big-fish awards, and pocketed more than $29,000 in tournament winnings without touching a leech, crawler, or minnow.
"It was a great year," says Heiser, of West Fargo, North Dakota. "You don't have to use livebait to catch walleyes and be competitive." "Fishing artificials frees you from the hassles of livebait and reduces the chances of spreading harmful aquatic invasive species," adds Morris, of Fargo, North Dakota. "Plus, I believe it makes you a better fisherman by forcing you to target the most aggressive biters with high-percentage presentations."
Heiser sees an additional advantage that could help propel the walleye world onto a larger stage. He believes focusing on artificial presentations could lure more sponsors to the table, make walleye tournaments more lucrative, and sell more tackle in the process.
As he reflects on changes in the tournament world, Courts agrees artificial presentations are stronger than ever. "Artificials including softbaits such as Berkley Gulp! and PowerBait, and lipless lures like the Rapala Rippin' Rap have definitely gained ground," he says. This helps explain why, while he once trolled whole crawlers to win a crown, Courts today is more likely to spin 4-inch Gulp! crawlers on a slow-death rig or pop a Jigging Rap in front of a walleye's nose. For walleye fans, such observations provide tantalizing ideas to consider as we prepare for the season ahead. –
Dan Johnson, Harris, Minnesota, is a frequent contributor to In-Fisherman publications and director of All Creation Outdoor Media.